Friday, June 19, 2015

The Institute of Cool Stuff, or it must be Art, right?

Sometimes I argue myself round in circles about the meaning of Art. I recently gave a talk at a Symposium on Artist Identity at Birkbeck University, about how loaded the words we use to identify ourselves as Artists, Designers and Craftspeople are, and how the foundation for that is laid or disrupted in the art classroom.  and I was going to post the transcript here, but I'm not allowed because they are probably putting it in a magazine.
So today I wrote this instead. 

Editorial illustration for review of Pop Life exhibition at Tate Modern 2009 - Jenny Robins

I recently learned about The Toaster Project by Thomas Thwaites, it is quite old, but I learnt about it on a TED Radio Hour podcast that they re-issued this week from some years ago, you can see Thwaites' TED Talk here

It made me think about a conversation I had in 2005 with my then boyfriend, now hugsband. I know it was in 2005, because I had just come from seeing the Turner Prize exhibition where Simon Starling's transforming shed had won the traditionally controversial accolade. It was one of those conversations that stays with you forever and shapes and changes you a little bit but more becomes an echo in your brain that pings off when your thoughts take certain well worn paths. One of those soundbites that circles your consciousness. I'm sure you have some of those yourself, I don't know if he remembers it. But more of that later.

Thomas Thwaites decided to try and build a toaster from scratch. Actually from scratch as in mining and smelting his own iron ore to make the steel, apparently it was not an entire success. He couldn't do everything that needs to be done to make a toaster without a scientific lab or high tech factory floor to help him. But he got pretty close, and it cost him £8000 and a year. But then he sold it to an art museum for £20,000. So a profit of £12000 for his work, which is not bad really. This was mentioned in passing on the podcast, and my googling skills have not manage to turn up details of which art museum this was. This contextual titbit seems hidden from online accounts of the project, although I haven't read the book, so of course I don't know whether the toaster from scratch as art object is shown as an endpoint there. I have a feeling the book is more about the journey and the technological economic onion layers Thwaites' researches peel back.

The project raises all sorts of questions about the intense complexity of the web of international manufacture and processing needed to produce even the most seemingly basic of everyday objects. And of science and how remarkably far we've come in industrial processes that the majority of the human race has no more than a rudimentary understanding of. And how even if there was no-one in the world who knew how to make a toaster from scratch it would not stop toasters from being made, as long as someone somewhere is making each little component from materials created somewhere else from resources mined somewhere else by someone who knows how to be really good at that, or at least how to be really good at exploiting their workers. And how efficient the global tides of commodity need to be to make it possible to buy all of this technology and industry in the form of a toaster from Argos for £3.95. It's easy to forget how big the world is and the economies of scale necessary to make it feel as small as it does, but come the zombie apocalypse, we will probably all wish we had learnt how to make industrial grade electronic components. 

Of course. It's a brilliant project, that holds a mirror up to the world we live in and investigates it while telling us a story. 

It must be Art, right? 

Thwaites was a student at the Royal College of Art at the time of this project, and of course the toaster itself has now been legitimated as a piece of Art by its sale, embodying in its ugly melty self all of the big ideas and the labour intensive project. 

On his website Thwaites describes himself as "a designer (of a more speculative sort)." The Ted Radio Hour editors curated the Toaster Project into a category of inspirational stories about the pursuit of curiosity. I think there is a tendency today, to avoid defining these kind of imaginative and ambitious projects that the Ted Talks roster is full of with the capital A word. 

Which brings me back to Simon Starling. 

In 2005 Starling won the Turner Prize with Shedboatshed, a project in which he found an old shed he found on the banks of the Rhine, took it apart, used the pieces to make and fill a small boat, then used the boat to travel down river to Basel, Switzerland where he dismantled it and turned it back into the original shed inside the Museum there, and later in the Turner exhibit at Tate Modern. 

So I was doing a unit in Art History as part of my degree in Illustration at the time, and I went to the show and I made a powerpoint presentation about Simon Starling's shed. Sadly this slideshow seems to have been lost to posterity, but needless to say it was excellent and insightful and contained rotating shed graphics. 

In terms of successful craftsmanship this project might be seen as the antithesis of Thwaites' toaster. Although both draw our attention to the individual maker within a mass produced society, and the temporal nature of design.

Starling's shed MUST be Art though, right? It won the Turner Prize! 

So I was telling Alex about Shedboatshed. I remember exactly where we were, walking down Bedford Place in Southampton towards the centre of town. And he liked the idea of a shed becoming a boat and then becoming a shed again, but he was having trouble with said project being considered capital A Art. Just like the majority of the population, and probably more art students than would admit it to their tutors, that category was reserved primarily for objects made to be looked at, paintings mostly, for things that give you something aesthetic without having to know their history. The majority of classical and modern art in fact, whether figurative or abstract. I asked him whether he thought the project shouldn't have happened, and he said no, and he didn't think it shouldn't be exhibited either. But not in a gallery. There should be a place to show things like Shedboatshed without calling them Art. An Institute of Cool Stuff. 

The Institute of Cool Stuff has existed in my head ever since.

Imagine that you could show your work, or apply for funding for a project, simply on the basis that it is pretty cool. 

And the great thing is that today, you kind of can. The democratic nature of the internet rewards the pretty cool project with clicks, views and funding if the initial bridge of communication can be achieved. 

People have always made things without a good excuse. Which is to say, because they want to, because they are driven to, because they have ideas that they think are cool and want to see them happen in reality. 

Sometimes this gets called Art. Sometimes the makers get to a place where they self identify as Artists and even persuade the Art World to pay them lots of money for these projects.

We have to be realistic about that £8000 and a year of his life Thwaites was able to dedicate to his toaster, and that profit he was able to make. Most people are not in that position. The kind of Art that engages with the real flow of power and money in the world on it's own terms is a gross parody wrapped in a greedy realism. Starling had another work in that 2005 exhibition called One Ton II in which 5 platinum plate prints showed photographs of the South African mine from which one ton of ore had to be mined in order to produce the platinum used to make the prints. These works are subtle and reflective and hold dark mirrors up etc. etc. but really I think they are not much separate from Damien Hursts' diamond covered skull. 

Ordinary people, and I assert there is no such thing as an ordinary person but for the purposes of the argument, make cool stuff all the time. Anyone could make an ugly and non functioning sort of toaster from scratch, or take apart a shed and make it into a boat - well they would need to take some courses and do some research obviously, and they might need some help, but what it a project without research? What's the point in making if you're not learning? And most of those plucky creators wouldn't expect or receive the return on investment that Thwaites and Starling did, or that in the case of the diamond skull, Hurst tragicomically failed to receive. Making in the corners of our lives is cool too. It still takes courage. If doing a project takes you ten years because you have a day job and a mortgage and mouths to feed, that makes it more impressive in some ways. Whether you have the luck and the privilege to be able to dedicate your life to making, or whether you have the luck to have been born with the courage to dedicate a chunk of your life to making even without the chance to go to art school or to do internships or know the right people or any of that. Either way sometimes it pays off, and the unnamed art museum buys your toaster, and sometimes it doesn't. 

But as my friend Rebecca of The Pigeon's Nest points out about the people who look at her lovely crocheted products at craft fairs and say 'I could make that' - yes, but you DIDN'T! In other words, it's only by putting in the time and the balls and getting our hands dirty that we have created the new. The worthwhile. The cool. 

The Toaster would have a place in my Institute of Cool Stuff, along with Starling's shed. And so would crocheted bunny slippers. And lego sculptures, and Szopki and Baining masks and teddy bears dressed as popes. All of the peaks of human creativity and courage. 

But would it have painting and drawing in it? 

Now there's the real question. 

I mean yes, obviously it would.  

In drawing and making news, I made these last week. 

They are the actual migration routes of the birds, cool right? 

Two sold at the Blackhorse Workshop market, but two are available in my Etsy shop now.